The first memory CMarie Fuhrman has is of a robin singing. As the Indigenous author, poet and now podcast host recalled on a recent episode of Colorado Public Radio’s Terra Firma, she was about two years old when she heard the bird nesting in a bush outside her open bedroom window.
She remembers that after the bird’s chicks grew up and moved on, her dad carefully collected the broken, pale blue eggshells. He showed them to her, helping create not just a beautiful memory she holds even decades later, but also her deep love of bird songs. The robin’s song, she said in the Terra Firma episode “Robin’s Home Song,” “stirs an ancient recognition … [tying] us to generations we’ve never met or never will meet.”
Launched in January, Terra Firma aims to help people find their own connection with the natural world. Each short episode finds the dulcet-voiced Fuhrman delivering a story over exquisitely captured natural audio, courtesy of conservationist and recordist Jacob Job. After joining Colorado State University in 2015 to research the effects of noise pollution, Job became interested in using sound not just to demonstrate the story his work was trying to tell, but as a way to connect listeners to places they may not have been.
On a work trip to Hawaii, he grabbed a microphone on a whim and set up in the middle of a rainforest at 3 a.m. People loved the result, and he’s been producing nature-based audio ever since, including National Park Nature Walks, a podcast for Scientific American.
In Terra Firma, Job’s field recordings transport the listener to the rushing waters of the Payette River in west-central Idaho, where the bright red kokanee salmon are beginning to spawn, and to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, where bull elk loudly rut, protecting their harems from potential rivals. Together, Fuhrman and Job create meditations on nature and our place in it, with Fuhrman noting in the salmon episode that “witnessing of this kind creates a stillness in us that we savor.”
Terra Firma is a production of CPR’s Audio Innovations Studio, which has previously launched acclaimed podcasts like On Something, about life after cannabis legalization, and ¿Quién Are We?, which explored Latino identity and heritage. Studio head Brad Turner says Terra Firma first started to develop a couple of years ago, when he stumbled on some of Job’s work on SoundCloud. Turner was impressed with how Job had captured the sound of rainstorms and elk bugling and thought it could be something worth pursuing. He asked editor/producer Erin Jones to investigate further.
“Jacob has such a valuable and beautiful body of work that Brad wanted to see if we could make a podcast or some kind of sound project with it,” Jones said. “I teamed up with Rebekah Romberg, another producer in our department, and we started to brainstorm.” They knew they wanted to do something that combined nature and art, but they weren’t sure what kinds of sounds or stories people would like to hear. The pair decided to do POV and empathy interviews to see what listeners might respond to, ultimately ending up with a loose version of Terra Firma that paired Job’s work with Fuhrman’s poetry and essays.
“When Erin and Rebekah were first talking with CMarie and developing the format, Erin made a demo by playing one of Jacob’s soundscapes from her laptop speakers while reading one of CMarie’s published poems,” Turner said. “It was just to see if the texture worked, but even that lo-fi version seemed like something we wanted to hear more of.”
‘I feel home’
CPR decided to push forward on the project and is now committed to producing eight episodes, four of which are already out in the world. Its creators hope the podcast finds both a local and a national audience. Jones said she sees the ideal listener as someone who “loves nature but can’t always access it easily the way they might like.”
CPR is also hoping the show finds listeners that are open to a nontraditional podcast form. “There are just not a lot of things in the podcast world that merge nature and art,” Jones said. “At CPR, part of our department’s mission is to innovate, and with Terra Firma, we had an opportunity to be a leader and forge ahead with experimental audio and unusual forms in the podcast space.”
Indeed, the first few episodes of Terra Firma were an experiment of sorts. Fuhrman and Job had never met in person — and still haven’t — so CPR had to build a connection between the two while also crafting its vision for the podcast. CPR had never worked with Fuhrman — Romberg stumbled across her website while she and Jones were looking for writers who fit the idea of the podcast. But everyone loved the way she “weaves together big-picture reflections that push back against settler-colonialism with sharp observations of the natural world,” Jones said.
Initially, producers decided to send Fuhrman a selection of Job’s recordings and tasked her with writing essays in response. Fuhrman then put the words on tape, and CPR synced the whole thing together. A few episodes later, they asked Fuhrman to lead the charge. She wrote an essay, and Job responded with some pieces of audio from his library that he thought made sense in tandem.
“As someone who has always had a deep relationship with nature, when I listen to the sounds that Jacob has collected, I feel home and I feel recognition,” said Fuhrman. Job agreed, saying that when Terra Firma is at its best, “it’s not just sound and it’s not just story. It’s a melding of the two in a way that gives you space to not just hear the story, but hear your own story or your place in those stories and inject yourself there.”
Jones said that she hopes audiences find a sense of “expansion” in the episodes or maybe a sense that they’re seeing the world in a surprising new way. “To me, Terra Firma really feels like this melding of the observations of a scientist with the observations of a poet,” said Jones. “Some people think of those as opposites, but in our show, they come around and meet and become the same.”
Like a late-night phone call
Each episode of Terra Firma is rooted in a specific natural place in the West, whether it’s the Big Thompson Canyon in Colorado or a ridge in southern Utah. Job’s audio conjures the scenery, but then Fuhrman steps in to widen the lens a little. “CMarie really roots us in who she is and where she is, and then it expands into something universal or philosophical that feels bigger than the place and her character,” said Jones.
Fuhrman says she views her role in the podcast as a sort of guide or translator. “I offer the story that ties us not only to the place, but allows us the sound,” said Fuhrman. “It’s almost like you’re with a friend and you’re taking a walk together or sitting by a stream.”
By using a tone of voice she says is “like a late-night phone call when you’re excited to see somebody, but you’re not quite seeing them yet,” Fuhrman said she hopes she can help listeners find the sweet spot between what she called “dream worlds and waking worlds.”
“In order to help people connect to nature or to wildness, we have to pause and listen, even if it’s for short periods,” Fuhrman said. “To be able to offer something that allows a listener to slow down so they want to take a seat and really hear is, I hope, in a way showing them what they can also do in nature. We don’t need any proxy, and we don’t need anything between us. We can just go outside.”
Job agrees, saying he views Terra Firma as “a chance for people to be contemplative about not just nature, but our place alongside, within and next to nature.” Through his contribution to Terra Firma, Job hopes he helps people form meaningful connections with the outdoors, rather than what he calls “selfie connections.”
“I wish we had the same reverence for our forest or wetland cathedrals that we do for manmade cathedrals associated with any religion,” said Job. “We’ve been trained to walk into churches and automatically speak in hushed, respectful tones, but we don’t often see that in those forest cathedrals. With Terra Firma, we’re also trying to instill a sense of respect and reverence along with that connection that we’re building.”
Fans and the audience seem to agree, with Terra Firma earning “new and noteworthy” status from both Apple Podcasts and NPR One, as well as rave reviews from listeners. “As a nature lover living in a concrete metropolis, this is a very helpful way of feeling connected,” wrote one fan on Apple Podcasts.
“I think wilderness is something evolutionary that lives inside all of us,” said Job. “We all have, for lack of a better term, crawled out of the wilderness. So many of us are in urban areas now, but it still lives inside of us. That’s why, for instance, the sound of a wolf howling can send chills up our spine. It can make us feel some sort of way that’s hard to pinpoint. Wilderness still lives inside of us, though, and so I hope that when people listen to Terra Firma — whether they’re in their cars or in a meditative mode where they can focus — that they can really tap into all of that.”
Corrections: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Erin Jones as a producer. Jones is an editor/producer and works as an editor on Terra Firma. The article also incorrectly referred to Centennial Sounds as a production of CPR’s Audio Innovations Studio. It was produced before CPR launched the studio.